Friday, December 10, 2010

Speed, bonny boat ...

You know the rest, don't you?

... Like a bird on the wing,
Onward, the sailors cry.
Carry the lad that’s born to be king
Over the sea to Skye.

Loud the winds howl, loud the waves roar,
Thunderclaps rend the air.
Baffled, our foes stand by the shore –
Follow they will not dare.

Et cetera.  Is it stuck in your head now?  Will you be singing it for the next three days?  (I probably will.  Thanks a lot!)

Yes, I’ve been to Skye.  Make that back to Skye —most of you know that I lived over in the UK for a while after university, and out of all the mini-trips my sister Julie and I did around the UK and Ireland, I think the trip to Skye was probably my favourite.  I was curious to go back; until this year, I’ve always been going somewhere “new” instead of revisiting places that I’ve been and loved.

It’s been a while, but Skye is just as I remembered.  It’s still breathtakingly lovely, the weather is still maddenly capricious and the sheep still as utterly stupid as that visit years ago.  I came at things from a different angle this time —taking the ferry across from the Isle of Harris in the outer Hebrides, instead of across from the mainland at Kyle of Lochalsh, and staying in Portree instead of Kyleakin —but I went back to some of the same spots and fell in love with some new ones, too.

I remember the first trip vividly.  We’d met another Canadian girl named Elizabeth, aged about 18, on the train over from Inverness and we all opted to stay at a wee hostel in Kyleakin, which had no phone, no TV and (in those days) definitely no Wi-Fi or internet.  So we chatted to the other travellers (it was a time of year when other people WERE travelling, too, not just crazy people like me), and one of the group of Italian students also staying there had a guitar.  So she played, and we all sang; I think “Te Amo” was the most successful attempt, as they sang in Italian and we sang in English.

Oh, and there was a cute Aussie guy named Rob staying there as well, and the four of us (Julie, me, Elizabeth and Rob) rented a car one day for a tour of the island.  And I think later that night Rob hit on me, but as my fetish for Aussie backpackers hadn’t yet developed (and, of course, because I had a boyfriend back in London), I didn’t take him up on it.  (Huh.  Damn, with hindsight, I might have chosen to act differently, seeing as that other relationship didn’t work out so well.)

The only change that’s happened in the intervening years that I DON'T like is the bridge across from the mainland at Kyle of Lochalsh.  It’s not a bad bridge, as bridges go (it’s even kind of pretty), but the short little ferry ride was so much more enjoyable —probably mostly because Julie and I could sing several choruses of the Skye Boat Song (there, it’s stuck in your head again, isn’t it?).

But the rest is lovely.  Portree is the “big” town on Skye, but even so it’s only a few streets big.  And I can vouch for the fact that it’s a quiet, quiet place in the off-season —even the pubs were pretty empty, and I got there on a Saturday night!  Needless to say, I spent a lot of quality time with myself (but I’m good with that).

It’s pretty, though, and there’s a agreeable little hike you can take near the town that gives you some spectacular views of the area.  In summer, it would be a doddle, as it’s quite short; in the winter, however, with the paths coated in ice (the temperature hovered around zero and snow had melted and re-frozen) and in some places taking you steeply up- and downhill, it’s a fairly challenging undertaking.  I resorted to sliding down on my bum for the steeper downhill bits —I did remember to wear the good hiking boots, but even they couldn’t get any purchase on the slick trail.  (Plus it was fun regressing temporarily to a five-year-old state.)

My pictures are all up on Shutterfly, so go have a look —I can’t begin to do justice to the views in mere words.  Suffice to say it’s gorgeous, and the weather was clear and sunny as I toiled up and down slopes, so when I wasn’t busy watching my footing I had ample chance to enjoy the scenery.  This being Scotland, however, the weather turned as I neared the top of the wee mountain; I made my way back down to town in snow and hail and clouds that rolled in, seemingly in the blink of an eye.  (Rule of thumb for dressing in Scottish winter:  wear as many layers of clothing as you possess, with at least one waterproof.  That way you can strip down or add more as the season changes from summer to winter and everything in between.  And if you don`t like the current weather, wait it out and it`ll be fine again in five minutes.)

Sunday, I resorted to renting a car (trying very hard not to think about what the bill for rental and gas was costing me in Canadian dollars —it was fairly shocking), as there is no bus service at all on the island save the long-distance coaches that go on to the mainland.  So if I didn’t want to be holed up in the hostel or a deserted pub, I had to drive myself around.

Started out quite cautiously, as the weather was a bit dicey and the condition of the roads unpredictable, but as I worked my way around the peninsulas and over to the west side of the island, it got sunny and warm, and the roads were dry as a bone.  So I was able to take a detour to Neist Point after all; it’s probably my favourite spot on this, my favourite island (and if you’ve been in my living room, you’ll have seen a picture of it, as it’s up on my wall).  I had the spot pretty much to myself (save for the sheep who seemed to like throwing themselves in front of my car), and I could have happily stayed there for hours, just drinking in the view.
Neist Point, Isle of Skye

But, mindful of the early nightfall and the changeable weather, I started heading back to town as it neared 3 p.m.  Heavy snow rolled in again as I made it back to the main road, so it was a slow and torturous drive back; the views of the Cuillins, though, shrouded in mist and snow, made it all worthwhile.  (I didn't dare try driving up on some of the tiny side roads, so I just admired them from afar.)

Getting off the island again was not quite as enjoyable — I couldn’t get the ferry to Mallaig because of the weather, so had to take a long detour round by bus via Kyle of Lochalsh to Fort William before I could finally get a train that evening to Oban.  (Oh, and I lost my very expensive glasses somewhere along the way, which annoys me immensely because they’re brand-new, almost.  And because my eyes are so screwed up, the lenses alone cost about $600, which means that, until I have health insurance again, I won`t be spending the cash to replace them.  My backup pair, circa 1999, are horrible but at least I can still see when I’m not wearing contacts.) 

Getting of the island the first time around didn`t go exactly as planned either — I think we`d planned to take the ferry to Mallaig and the train from there, but the ferry wasn`t running then, either.  (Unexpected snow in late March.)   But I do remember we took the sleeper train from Fort William back to London, and giggled like five-year-olds as we played with all the buttons and switches in our wee little compartment.  (Hey, I think it was the first time either of us had taken a night train.  We got pretty used to it as we started travelling around Europe.)

But, however I get there and however I leave, being on Skye, itself, is still one of my favourite ways to spend my travel time.  Can’t think why I waited so long to come back!

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